I Go Down to the Shore | Words of Wednesday

I Go Down to the Shore

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall–
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Mary Oliver


From Mary Oliver’s collection A Thousand Mornings. 

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A Conscious Act | Words of Wednesday

For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena


Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. An award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, whose published work spans more than five decades, Le Guin was (among other things) a woman in a male-dominated field (specifically, the science fiction genre), a life-long student of Taoism, an astute observer of human nature, and an unparalleled tale-weaver, word-smith, and world-builder.

Le Guin sold her first novel at the age of thirty-seven (a fact that, at thirty-one, gives me great hope), and the years she’d already spent as a scholar (as an undergraduate at Radcliffe, as a graduate student at Columbia, and as a Fulbright recipient in France) — not to mention as a mother, wife, and generally thoughtful, engaged human being — lent her books a care and depth that is unquestionably literary (despite their broad public appeal).

I’ve long been a fan — a lover — of Le Guin’s work (especially her Earthsea cycle, which, in contrast to so much contemporary fantasy, manages to create worlds of depth and originality with an economy of pages and words), but it’s only recently that I’ve started to realize the true breadth of her genius. There is a particular kind of joy in discovering that a favorite author is not only brilliant, but prolific — and prolific across genres. I’ve read fifteen of her books to date, and numerous short stories, ranging from fantasy, science fiction, and retold myth to young adult novels and historical fiction, yet there remain a veritable feast of books, essays, and short stories to discover. 

This quote comes from my most recent Le Guin read (which also happens to be the first book I finished in 2019). Set in the early 1800s, in an imaginary central European country, Malafrena was utterly refreshing and unexpected. Published in 1979, it was written (at least in draft form) over twenty-five years earlier, and thus represents the oldest of Le Guin’s published work. It reads . . . well . . . like a text written in central Europe in the early 1800s.

Despite my love and appreciation of Le Guin, her ability to write so far outside her expected canon still took me by surprise. The prose, characterization, and narrative are each rich, complex, nuanced, contradictory, and, ultimately, alien. Not familiar as even her most far-flung worlds are familiar, rooted as they are in a contemporary genre whose questions, contours, and tropes are our own. In contrast, the world of Malafrena is remarkably other: these are not our people (not contemporary minds and hearts, playing dress-up in historic clothes); this is not our time.

Yet the very strangeness echoes like a memory, reminding us of something important we’ve forgotten. As with Chesterton’s “moor eeffoc” (“coffee room” encountered backwards), we are startled awake — and the world is strange and wonderful and new once more.1 

It is a book, ultimately, about the nature of freedom, intentionality, necessity, and all the paradoxes and perils of our entangled, tragic, beautiful, brief, and confounding existence. What a perilous thing is choice; what a marvel to be human and alive.

If this was her world, she was strong enough to live in it. She was a woman, not trained for any public act, not trained to defiance, brought up to the woman’s part: waiting. So she would wait. For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena

Footnotes:

1. This is an effect I’m more used to attributing to fantasy, than realism (and thus the shock is somehow greater and stranger encountered in a historical novel like Malafrena, hiding as it is in plain sight), but Chesterton himself declared it “the motto of all effective realism.” So who am I to argue? 

When Death Comes: The Legacy of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver died today. The poet was 83 years old, and while she lived she reminded us of the miracle inherent in the everyday details of our world: the white heron taking to the sky, sleepy cats dozing in the sun, a grasshopper perched on an open palm.  She taught me to see the links between poetry and prayer, between attention, gratitude, and worship. She instructed my heart “over and over / in joy / and acclamation” — in “the prayers that are made / out of grass.”

She was a soul fully awake to life, and she welcomed her readers into that wakefulness — into a fearless embrace of the present moment. She was, indeed, “a bride married to amazement.” And I hope that I, too, can declare, when the end comes, that I wasn’t just a visitor to this place.

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Knowing We Are Alive | Words of Wednesday

To know that we are alive, that we can be in contact with all the wonders within us and around us, is truly a miracle.

–Plum Village Meditations (with Sister Jina)


Enjoying the gift of Christmas with family (in the Minnesotan homeland, complete with cousin-dominated Saturday broomball). This quote is from a series of meditations recorded at Thich Nhat Hanh’s former monastery. If you aren’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s life or teaching, I strongly recommend you become so. (Fifty-one years ago, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr, if that helps put his work in perspective — he’s currently 92 years old.)

Introducing Words of Wednesday

To be a writer, you must be a reader. This is a truth every writer knows. But it’s not just because we learn something of form and the rhythms and music of language from studying the masters. It’s because, as writers, words are our medium. What fill our souls, activate our minds, and grant us something to ponder.

Without the words of others — the works that move me and call me to life — I really would have nothing to say. Writing may be a journey into wakefulness, but I am taught to walk that path by those who came before me — those who startle me from complacency and inspire me into recognition. Those who reflect life, and truth, back to me in a form that I can process, grasp — be grasped by.

In honor of those voices that are feeding me on a daily basis, I’ve decided to start something new. An experiment, if you will. Every Wednesday, I would like to highlight some of the words that have spoken to me that week — some of the words that have called / are calling me into wakefulness. Fragment, paragraph, or poem, I’ll tell you where I found it (so you can retrace my steps if you’d like) and I might, or might not, explain something of the whys and wherefores of my choice — what power, relevance, or meaning it currently holds in my life.

The purpose of this is two-fold: 1. The pure joy of celebrating, and sharing, beautiful words. 2. To act as a sort of monument or artifact — a place to collect, and pay tribute to, some of the beauty I’m finding along the way.

That, after all, is what this blog — In Search of Waking was always meant to be about. An invitation to mindfulness. A reminder to pay attention. To wake up to the details — to the gift — of one’s life. My life. Writing, for me, has become, more and more, about a practice of gratitude. A way to cherish wonder. Nurture awe.1

I want to be alive and awake to the mystery, the miracle, that is my life. This life. The only one I get.

And part of that miracle — that gift — is ink on the page. The power of other writers’ words to call me back to myself and wake me up, remind me what I had forgotten or teach me what I never knew.

Since no one says what I’m trying to express more exquisitely than Annie Dillard (I almost wrote “more clearly,” but my high school students would have passionately disagreed), here is one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life to get us started:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

Footnotes

1. As Anne Lamott alludes — both in her writing book, Bird by Bird, and in her audio-lecture, “Word by Word (which I recently re-listened to) — being a writer is about slowing down, becoming conscious, and asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be? Every writer I’ve ever loved has said the same thing in their own way.

The Valiant Never Taste of Death but Once: Alex Honnold’s ‘Free Solo’

It was a few years ago when my brother first introduced me to Alex Honnold. “You have to see this,” he said, sitting me down to watch a twenty minute documentary about Alex free soloing Half Dome. At the time, I knew pretty much nothing about climbing, but I didn’t need to — the astounding nature of the feat was self-evident, and I remember feeling speechless . . . flabbergasted . . . amazed.

Not just at the physical prowess demonstrated in such a climb, but at the mental fortitude of the climber. Hesitate, second-guess, doubt — let one’s mind wander for the merest sliver of an instant — and all is lost. As with Neo in The Matrix, success relies on a single-minded faith few of us seem capable of possessing.

In other words, Alex Honnold has a mind of steel.

It was with that documentary in mind that I accompanied my brother to Alex’s newest movie — this one a feature-length documentary on his ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan — this past Saturday. I had the audacity to wonder, is this mostly going to be what I’ve already seen?

The answer is a resounding no. 

Whatever it was I was expecting upon entering the theater, Free Solo was more.

It wasn’t just the impact of watching Alex’s climb on the big screen (though that was certainly not to be missed). Or the raised stakes of an even more impossible, awe-inducing summit — an athletic feat to rival anything we’ve seen at the Olympics (even if one doesn’t factor in the repercussions of the smallest mistake).

We are watching a human being accomplish what no human being has ever done before, and there is something monumental in that awareness. So, yes, Free Solo is well worth watching for the cinematography and the sheer wonder of Alex’s achievement. I would argue, however, that it is as a memento mori that the film is most successful, and most powerful.

This is a movie made in the awareness of death. Of mortality. A fact powerfully driven home by the transparency of the filmmakers. Climbers all, they wrestle on-screen with the ethics of their documentary — the reality that a mistake on their part could cost Alex his life. The awareness that — at any moment — they may watch him die. May capture it on film. Alex is not a myth to these men — he is their friend, and he is human.

The relevance here is not Alex’s mortality, but our own. Driving away the night before Alex’s climb, his girlfriend states that she shouldn’t have to wonder if that was the last hug. The last time she’ll get to see him, hold him, say goodbye. But isn’t the reality, truly, the same for all of us, though we often refuse to face it? How are we to know when a hug, a smile, a goodbye, might be our last? We are all mortal — fragile and perishable — in a hard, sometimes violent, world. Can any of us, truly, avoid the hour of our deaths? Or do we simply live with the veneer of control because we can’t stand the sterner reality: that death comes for us all (and all those we love) and none of us knows the minute or the hour.

All of us have only one life. And all of us live under the perilous sacrament of choice: how will we choose to live it? Some would argue that Alex is being reckless with that gift — and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Am not sure, for instance, that I’d personally want the honor of being his girlfriend. Of loving him, and letting him climb. On the other hand, are any of us less likely to take our loves for granted than she is? Or any so alive as Alex, living in death’s shadow, fully present to his moments?

Being mortal means to die . . . but being human seems to mean that unless we taste that death, we can’t appreciate the life. We value the gift to the degree we submit to the knowledge it won’t last forever. That it is gift. We all exist on a precipice — it’s just that, for most of us, it’s far less visible than Alex’s.

Am I trying to advocate we all take up free soloing tomorrow? Of course not. (No more than I’d advocate us staying in bed because there might be lions in the street.) But Alex can remind us to live our lives with courage — to engage in the holy act of choosing, and to accept the consequences of those choices.

It seems impossible to watch Alex climb — to listen to Alex talk about climbing — and not believe he was, in some sacred way, created to climb. And I am reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, in her iconic “Living Like Weasels”:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

Alex has grasped his “one necessity” but our choice remains: how will we live and how will we love, mortals that we be? Have we courage enough — steel enough — to take the leap?

 

A Simple Tuesday

“But here, on our ordinary Tuesdays, is where we make our homes and learn to be human.” –Emily P. Freeman

I startled a deer today. (Well, to be accurate,
Magnus startled the deer, arms waving in a frantic joy,
calling out, in recognition, one being to another, in wonder,
in celebration, in the ecstasy of living. Do you see me? I’m here,
world, I’m here.) It raised its delicate antlers, eyes serious and calm,
the curve of its nose, its ears, its flank, somehow gentle
in their outline, a peaceable wildness in our midst.

Earlier this morning, I sat on a bench, traced words
onto brown paper, the patterned cloth of my Kenyan notebook
smooth against the inside of my palms. The wooden bridge before me
unfolding beneath a canopy of trees (Magnus sings them songs, these trees,
so tall and straight and heavenbound), as the dappled sunlight
filtered onto my pages, into my hair, between my fingers,
and Magnus studied the outline of a long sleek pen,
and wrote no words at all.

Later, I’ll crawl into my bed and nap,
papers strewn across my room’s brown rug
(Magnus’s fingerprints on each and every one), and
later still, I’ll walk beneath a rose-edged sky, wondering
about these moments, and what it means to live them well.
I’m here world. Do you see me? I’m here. A deer grazes
peacefully as I pass. Overhead, the sky darkens
towards dusk, and the first planets blink
into existence. I blink back.

Magnus and Deer